Ain't It Grand?
It'll be three years this fall since Dwain Wilder let me take his Bear Meadow Concert Grand home from Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. He had first told me about the instrument at the Pocono Dulcimer Fest earlier in the year and I was infinitely curious about the prospect of working with a MIDI mountain dulcimer. MIDI is an acronym that stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and the technology has been around for quite a while, allowing musicians to trigger synthesizers using controllers. Now, a controller can be anything from a keyboard to a drum pad to an acoustic instrument and that's the magic of the Concert Grand; it allows you to play sounds otherwise impossible with a mountain dulcimer.
Having started my music career as a keyboardist, the promise of being able to incorporate synth sounds using a dulcimer was intriguing and exciting but not a far stretch as there have been guitar synthesizers around for decades. It just took an envelope-pusher to decide to drop a MIDI interface into a mountain dulcimer (he's not the first person to do it, but one of the only boutique builders out there offering it as an option.) Dwain was likewise interested in getting it into my hands to see what I could do with it as well as providing some feedback on how his creation fared in the studio. I endeavored to do some recording with it and, extremely mindful of its $3500 price tag (which still hangs from one of the tuning gears as a reminder that it's not mine), I carefully ferried it home.
At first, not a lot happened. I figured I could just hook it up to my keyboards at home, but not without the proprietary Roland interface. After awhile, Dwain sent me the cable and his Roland GR-1 Guitar Synthesizer. Though the instrument sounds beautiful on its own, the real magic took place when I plugged it into the GR-1 and began to work with the controls on the sound board. A flip of a switch here, and I had light synth horn pads ghosting the acoustic notes of the dulcimer. Another flipped switch and the signal turned to pure synthesizer. The possibilities were mind-boggling.
Then, I hit the road for a huge summer tour.
And more time passed. Books were written. "Dive!" was completed.
Finally, some time opened up in my schedule and I sat down to begin work on the MIDI project. Since Dwain had set up the dulcimer in AEAE, a configuration that I wasn't at all used to, I decided that the bulk of the recording would be based on new original compositions that would allow me to explore the configuration as well as the circuitry. I sat down with the Concert Grand, opened Garageband, and ended up with a 7-minute piece that I arbitrarily named "All Songs Lead To The Gift Shop."
That opened the floodgates and now, finally, production is well underway on this recording which will feature only the Concert Grand with some percussion assistance by way of loops. Everything from the main lines to rhythm piano to bass lines will be produced by the Concert Grand. Yesterday, I retuned to AEAA and recorded a spritely version of "Sandy River Belle" using a two-track technique that isolates the acoustic sound of the dulcimer with a condenser microphone while going direct with the synthesizer, unlike "All Songs Lead To The Gift Shop", which used just the one output to deliver a mix. The result is something more organic than you would expect. Today, I plan on expanding my sonic possibilities by hooking the GR-1 up to my Roland Fantom keyboard.
As the first of the five albums I'm working on in the next several months, "All Songs Lead To The Gift Shop" promises to be the most surprising as I plan on literally throwing everything at the Concert Grand that it can handle before packing it up and sending it on to some other folks who likewise want to take it for a test drive. I'll be posting behind-the-scenes video on my public Patreon feed and, of course, will be also posting the first draft tracks from the album on the patron-only feed (both existing tracks are there now.)
I want to thank Dwain for the opportunity to work with this extraordinary instrument and his gracious patience while I have jockeyed to clear room in my schedule to do the deed. This takes me back to the days of fiddling with faders while recording my first albums in the mid-1980's and, like then, this is just way too much fun!